South Africa has had to adjust to life without its best player, Cecil Afrika, and though the season hasn’t been a disaster, it hasn’t been easy, either.
Afrika is expected back soon from a knee injury, but now his team might have learned to play without him.
The Blitzbokke blitzed New Zealand 40-21 on Sunday, scoring the first 35 points to win the USA Sevens rugby tournament for the second time in three years.
“This is the first time that we’ve won a tournament without Cecil,” South Africa coach Paul Treu said. “I think they’re going to start bringing their confidence and their belief, and that can only come with a win.”
Defending tournament champion Samoa defeated Fiji 36-31 to win the third-place game; Canada beat Scotland 22-5 for the Plate title (fifth place); France took the Bowl division (ninth place) with a 17-12 victory over Argentina; and Australia blanked Uruguay 41-0 for the Shield crown (13th place).
The U.S. was defeated in sudden death 24-19 by Canada in the Plate semifinals.
An announced crowd of 24,702 showed up at Sam Boyd Stadium, beating last year’s final-day total of 23,672. The three-day tournament attracted a total of 67,431 fans, besting last year’s record of 64,107.
South Africa looked right at home in its domination of New Zealand, taking a 28-0 lead by halftime.
“Everybody bought into what we had to do,” said South Africa’s Branco du Preez, who scored two tries and had 20 points. “It came out really well.”
South Africa moved from a three-way tie for fourth to second place in the series standings with 73 points. That is still well behind New Zealand, which has 96 points with four events remaining.
“I don’t think we can catch them,” Treu said. “But I think this is about us. … I think this is about getting better all the time.”
The Blitzbokke had to learn to play without Afrika, and were coming off a disappointing seventh-place showing in New Zealand. They also hadn’t won a tournament this season, but had two third-place finishes.
Now maybe getting back Afrika, who has been out two to three months, will make them even stronger.
“They deserved to win this week,” Treu said. “They worked so hard for it.”
For the U.S., Sunday’s lone game symbolized the entire tournament. The Eagles gave a quality team all it could handle, but came up short.
They also had chances to beat Samoa and Fiji, but lost by a combined seven points. The U.S. did defeat Spain 22-7 to make the Cup round, and generally played well to perhaps build some momentum.
“It’s more we’ve got a chip on our shoulder,” said U.S. player Zach Test, who scored a try against Canada. “Against the top five teams in the world, we can beat them. So now, it’s like let’s go get it.”
Against Canada, the U.S. quickly fell behind 14-0, and coach Alexander Magleby blamed some players for being too individualistic and not following the game plan.
The Eagles rallied, with Folau Niua sending the game into sudden death with a try with 1:36 left. Canada won less than two minutes into extra play on Nanyak Dala’s try.
“The determination is there, but you can’t just have heart,” Magleby said. “You’ve got to have brains, too. We’re working on it.”
Now the U.S. moves on to Hong Kong on March 22 to 24, as the season winds down. Test said the Eagles are close to breaking through.
“I think we’re that one big win away from us jumping up to the top eight teams in the world,” Test said.
Magleby wasn’t sure one big victory would propel the U.S. to the next level, citing the closeness of the competition and the urgency for all countries to put themselves in position for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, when the sport makes its debut.
“It’s like the semiconductor industry in the ’90s,” Magleby said. “It just gets so much quicker so fast. Everybody’s getting better fast.
“It’s a race to the Olympics.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.